Books: PAPERBACKS

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Army Life in a Black Regiment and Other Writings by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Penguin pounds 8.99. Higginson was a journalist and prominent abolitionist campaigner (a friend of John Brown, no less) who in 1862 was appointed colonel of a regiment of freed slaves - in effect the first black unit to fight on the Union side in the Civil War. (An earlier experiment had fallen apart, giving ammunition to the many whites who felt that no black man should be let near a gun.) The sketches in this volume are drawn from his diaries of his two years in command. You have to take his idealisation of these heroes with a grain of salt, and - not surprisingly, given the time and place - the tone is often patronising to modern ears; a typical diary entry begins: "In many ways the childish nature of this people shows itself ...". But the novelistic narrative and Higginson's fierce concern for natural justice should ease any qualms.

Among the other essays included is Higginson's account of his relationship with Emily Dickinson, who wrote to him in response to an article addressed to young authors, and whose patron and often uncomprehending advocate he became.

The True Story of the Novel by Margaret Anne Doody, HarperCollins pounds 9.99. A vast, immensely well-read and readable polemical account of three thousand years of the novel - Doody's central argument being that, contrary to the version put about by Ian Watt in his classic The Rise of the Novel, the novel is not an invention of Western Protestant, bourgeois culture. (That version implies a distinction between the novel and the romance which other cultures don't make, and which Doody suggests - pretty convincingly - is vacuous.) Instead, its origins lie in the ancient world.

If that was all, this book would be a sledgehammer to crack a nut: all Doody has to do is present examples of the novel in the ancient world, which she does with admirable thoroughness. But she has a further point: in her introduction she talks about negative attitudes to the modern novel and remarks, puzzlingly, that repudiation is widespread "even though the majority of all our Western novelists for 2,000 years have been male". This puzzle is solved when it emerges that, putting it crudely, she believes the novel is an essentially feminine form - individualist, disruptive and liberating, opposed to authoritarian masculinity. You have to take a pretty selective view of men and women to arrive at this sort of labelling; but if the conclusion seems wild, the journey there is often fascinating.

The Man of the House by Stephen McCauley, 4th Estate pounds 6.99. While we're on the subject of masculine and feminine, it's interesting to note that all the quotes on the blurb for Stephen McCauley's sensitive, mildly comic novel of Massachusetts' manners compare him to women: he's "the secret love child of Edith Wharton and Woody Allen", his writing is "most reminiscent of Ann Tyler's", his book includes "some of the most delightfully repellent children since [Alison Lurie's] The War Between the Tates". The book is not, you'll gather, wholly original. In fact, some of the jokes (like a shtick about the rural names that get attached to wholly suburban housing developments) are so old they hardly count as jokes at all - more a sort of small talk to establish humorous intent. McCauley's characters lead shapeless, enervated lives, mooning after lost relationships and failing to find new ones; and this gives the novel a tired, meandering quality which is, if you're in the right frame of mind, quite relaxing.

Electric Brae by Andrew Greig, Canongate, pounds 6.99. If it's masculine you're after, stick with Andrew Greig. Like many other male Scottish writers, he's self-consciously preoccupied with what it means to be Scottish and male. In this case, those worries get muddled up with quantities of sex, mountaineering and a taste for primitive symbolism, so that, for instance, he ends up describing the Old Man of Hoy as "450 feet of sheer prick". You could argue that his anxiety about relationships and his anti-authoritarian streak are feminine characteristics, but that hardly makes up for it.

253 by Geoff Ryman, Flamingo pounds 6.99. "The Print Remix" says the cover - this having originally been published on the WorldWide Web. Despite the new technology, though, it's a decidedly old-fashioned "experimental" novel. The title refers to the 253 people on a Bakerloo line train (252 passengers plus the driver) on 11 January 1995: each of them gets a page in which you learn what they look like, what they are thinking about and how they are connected with the other passengers. The text is surrounded by all sorts of apparatus - seating-plans, footnotes, index, instructions on how to use the book, spoof ads, packed full of self-referential gags about the omniscience of the author, etc. Far too irritating to read cover to cover, but possibly one to browse through at odd moments.

Royal Arts of Africa by Suzanne Preston Blier (Laurence King pounds 12.95) sumptuously examines kingship revealed through art and ceremony. Ranging across Central and West Africa, Blier weaves a narrative from competing interpretations bringing these spectacular arts alive for non-specialists. Niombo (life-size funerary mannequins) like the one above were made early in the 20th century. Specialist makers would visit the bedside of the dying person seeking their memorable characteristics - tattoos, missing or filed teeth - before constructing a cloth sculpture over the deceased's mummified body

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